November 29, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

Teaching Homer

If I were teaching Homer, I would...[1]

Homer British Museum.jpg

I would begin an exploration of Homer with a solid introduction to the epical tradition and Greek mythology. I would attempt to illustrate the conventions of the epic and place them in a socio-historic context as well as relating them to a more universal. The universal appeal of Homer’s epics would be the focus of my presentation; what do the hero’s struggle, his education, his descent, and his wisdom mean for the modern reader? In an attempt to answer this question, my study would examine the concepts of a hero and the cultural elements that produced those concepts to see how, if at all, they relate to cultural ideologies of the late 20th century. Through a firm understanding of Homer’s epical world of the Iliad and the Odyssey we can — hopefully — achieve a greater understanding our own cultural traditions, roles, and ideologies.

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On the Iliad; a. Freedom and responsibility. To what extent are the discussions made by the heroes independent, individual decisions? Discuss, along these lines, Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis from Achilles.

Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis from Achilles was primarily an act on Agamemnon’s part to buttress his position as leader of the Argive forces. With his compulsory surrendering of Chryse, Agamemnon’s authority, and his ego, were wounded and need to be bolstered. He seized this opportunity, as most in power probably would have, to reassert his authority after foolishly not accepting ransom for Chryse and bringing the wrath of Apollo on the Argives. What better way to show his kingship than to subdue the most powerful Greek warrior? Therefore, in this instance, Agamemnon’s decision was individual, but motivated by a sense of pride fostered by being the head of the Greek forces.

Achilles’ choice not to fight is also motivated by pride and ego, but it appears to be an individual choice. The warriors expect to be subservient to Agamemnon because he is king; therefore, Achilles’ acquiescence to the caprice of Agamemnon would not be seen as a weakness by the other Argives. Achilles’ pride is self-motivated unlike Agamemnon’s which is political, albeit shortsighted.

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Aristotle said that the man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need for others, is no part of the community, like a beast or a god. Discuss the figure of Achilles in the light of this statement.

Yes, those who cease to be part of a community cease to be human; much like Nietzsche’s Ubermench is the recluse Achilles. Having withdrawn from the community of the Achaeans Achilles ceases to be one of them — unable to feel compassion or remorse in his blinding superiority — and becomes more like a quixotic Dionysus: i.e. a slave to passion first for his loss of Briseis and then for his loss of Patroclus. Achilles never does reconcile himself with his community and his shade encountered by Odysseus in the Underworld seems to understand his failing: “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead” (Odyssey Book XI).

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On Aristotle’s Poetics: How does Aristotle define “epic” and how does he distinguish it from other genres/discourses?

While concluding that the tragedy is the “more excellent” form in light of its spectacle, song, unity, and catharsis, Aristotle states that both the epic and tragedy strive for the same effect: i.e. a unified plot achieved through thought, diction, plot (character), and spectacle. The epic contains a larger scene comprised of breadth of area and time which gives the narrative poet more freedom; however, the confining nature of the tragedy allows for “economy and intensity of effect.”[2] I could not find within the chapters of the Poetics an explicit definition of the epic, yet some criteria may be inferred. The epic, as stated above, has a greater scope, a greater use of the fantastic and the marvelous to beguile and mystify, a greater complexity in plot both in subplots and quantity of characters, and contradiction. The epic prefers “the use of impossible probabilities ? to that of unpersuasive possibility”;[3] e.g. the former can be exemplified by Homer’s combination of the characteristics of five beautiful women to make the portrait of Helen.[4] The latter is defined as a probably incident that lends neither to the necessity or probability of the plot. While the error of utilizing unpersuasive possibility in a tragedy is major, its use in an epic can be diminished by the poet’s use of diction to cover the irrational.


  1. This was an assignment for Dr. Fiore’s grad course in the epic.
  2. Aristotle (1968). Aristotle's Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature. Translated by Hardison, O. B. Prentice-Hall. p. 280.
  3. Aristotle 1968, p. 277.
  4. Aristotle 1968, p. 278.